Readings — From the July 2017 issue

Because You Have To

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By Catherine Lacey, from Certain American States, a forthcoming collection of short stories. Lacey’s second novel, The Answers, was published last month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. She is a winner of the 2016 Whiting Award.

The telephone hardly ever rings but when it does there is a good chance it’s someone asking me how I am, and if I really tried to answer that question I suppose I could say I’m doing as well and as terribly as I ever have been, but if you stop answering questions, people stop asking them, and if you stop answering the phone, it eventually stops ringing.

A month goes by, you think—Oh, I’ve finally done it.

Yesterday I opened the side door because the dog was barking at it and I called out, almost called out your name, almost thought you’d be coming back now, that it was all a joke, ha ha, and you’d be back, just like that.

Obviously it wasn’t you. It was Wayne from two yards over, though it was dark so I couldn’t see his face, could barely hear his voice over the barking. Wayne had found a loose dog and wondered if it was mine.

Wayne had the mystery dog—sand-colored and fat—under one arm and I was holding my dog by the collar (that is, our dog—no—my dog, a dog, anyway, no one’s dog, this dog you left in my care). This dog was lurching and screaming his dog scream and trying to get out the door. God knows what he’d do out there, dark as it was, afraid of flies as he is.

Are you missing a dog? Wayne asked.

No, I said, looking at this shit-eating dog of mine. I went back inside. There was only one dog relevant to me. I knew precisely where that dog was. In fact he was the only
person in my life of whose location I was certain.

Something my grandmother, who was a fascist, used to say was, You have to count your blessings. Once I asked her why you have to count your blessings and she gave me a great smack to the ear. Because you have to. She was the most beloved fascist in my family, all of whom were flag-waving fascists.

Do I sometimes think fondly of her? Do I have a choice?

A cat has been stalking around the yard, eating flowers straight from the bed, hissing and clawing at the birds.

The dog sticks his head out his dog door from time to time, or sits on the porch panting while the cat murders bird after bird. The dog seems delighted to do nothing. He licks the shit from his ass and smiles at me.

You have been calling and hanging up.

I know it’s you. The telephone rings differently when you call.

You can’t tell me I don’t recognize this. You have no idea what I hear, though it is so like you to doubt me, to assume I’m wrong. It is so like you to not be here and to call as if to point out your absence and to say nothing just to frustrate me.

Furthermore, a mouse and her extended and ever-extending family have taken up residence in the shed, living on pilfered compost scraps.

The cat is disinterested in the mice and is set on his task of pouncing on birds when they land in the garden, sniffing for tomatoes, berries, what have you. I wish him ill. I do. Each morning I find a mess of feathers in the dirt. Some mornings there are whole bird carcasses left on my porch—eyes shocked open, brilliant blue wings ripped and bloody. I have thought often of what it would take to kill a cat, quietly and quickly, with my bare
hands. In fact I am thinking of it
right now.

I set a small fire yesterday. I can’t sleep and there are these fields near my house and I was out walking, no one was around—I wasn’t even around—so I went out in the field and clicked my lighter in some dry grass and watched the flames grow until I could feel a warm glow on my shins. Who knows what became of it? Not me. I went home. What every crime requires, you told me once, is a decent getaway.

This isn’t a large house—four small rooms in a row, barely furnished, badly lit—and this wouldn’t bother me, living in a place you couldn’t play hide-and-go-seek in, if I didn’t know what terrible thing had recently happened here, the thing that created the circumstance in which I could rent this place so cheaply, no deposit, cash accepted, no questions asked.

The landlady is broke and jobless, can’t pay the mortgage, a single parent to two boys, had to quit working to take care of the older one because he, in a single week, threw a friend’s kitten from a second-floor window, was kicked out of school for unabashedly groping another student in the hallway, and was later caught being molested by his own father, who still has custody rights until the criminal case goes through and they’re not sure it will because the boy won’t say anything and she’s got no proof.

It’s just his word, and my word, and—It’s like—It’s like—the landlady stopped for a moment, her mouth still open, still wanting something, wanting to say something—it’s like nothing belongs to you. This world, I don’t know—it’s like someone else has everything and you have nothing. She was saying “you” to me, but I knew she didn’t mean me, but she did sort of mean me, and herself, and you. All of us. She didn’t say anything for a very long time or what felt like a very long time. She swallowed hard and nodded.

He’s six, she said.

How long does an event stay in a room?

I have wondered this most nights, staring at the stained walls, trying to fall asleep, thinking of that man I don’t know, that little boy I don’t know, and whatever might have happened, which I also don’t know. A few times I’ve tried sleeping in the yard, which was nice on the warmer nights, except twice I woke up with a cat claw to the face and if I ever catch that motherfucker it won’t be soon enough.

I think sometimes of the afternoon we moved in—the dog, a couple knives, a mattress, table, two chairs—and when you went back out to the truck to get the last box (your shit, your box, I don’t know what was in it) you just got in and drove off. I went out to the street where your truck had been and the fact that you’d just driven off like that was still hanging in the air, a sort of post-firework smoke, the sense that I had just missed something. 

A family of racoons seem to be living on the roof of the shed, just under a low-hanging oak branch. They wash one another and seem pleased with the way the late summer is going—me alone in this house, the dog getting fat on the porch, mice running everywhere, the cat’s mouth dripping with bird blood. They waddle around all night and sleep all day in a contented pile. I found another smash of feathers in a mud
puddle this morning.

The phone rings and I know it is you. It rings again—you you you. It rings again and I pick it up and we both sit in silence and I listen to you saying nothing and you listen to me saying nothing and we both know the other is out there and we both know we are apart and we both know where the past went and we both know nothing at all.

I swear to God—this cat. Another bird left dead on the stoop. If I find this cat—and I don’t care who owns the cat, whatever neighbor in whatever direction—I will
destroy it completely.

I’ve been picking raspberries from the neighbor’s garden before dawn with a flashlight. This, I feel, is not a crime. They leave them to rot and shrivel on the bush and I will not stand for it and I am not standing for it. I wear the camouflage jumpsuit you left behind. It reassures me that you are not just hiding somewhere. Sometimes I fling the jumpsuit across a chair while I’m eating a can of sardines. It’s a lot like you’re here. You’d be surprised how much it’s like you’re here.

I suppose I’ve started to become grateful that you left this dog, the only person I’ve spoken to in some time. I’m counting my blessings, as ordered. When I wake up I take him for a walk and when I first step into the morning air, wet and ambivalent, I sometimes forget everything I know, everyone I’ve ever robbed, every crime committed with you, and only then, for those few moments then, do I feel I am a person.

Knowing nothing, I say, to him, to myself, What do we even do out here? I ask him, Are you even a dog? He answers by not answering and I look at him, his loose tongue, his flopping ears, until I remember that all he wants to do is fuck something or eat something and run around in circles forever and ever.

You may have left this dog with me, left me with this dog, because you believe we are
perverse in the same way. That we deserve each other.

The cat is dead or gone or both. Someone has tacked missing signs on trees around the neighborhood, taped them to streetlight poles and novelty mailboxes. I walked up close to one on a sycamore tree—our beloved cat, ralph, has been missing since 10/19. we are worried about him!—and a picture of the cat, the Ralph, scowling. I draw a small cartoon penis aimed for his left ear.

A bad week for the dog. Monday night I woke up to the sound of him vomiting at the foot of the mattress, and Wednesday morning I found him whimpering over a diarrheal shit spread between two rooms. I stopped feeding him, thinking whatever poison was in him would eventually run out, but he only seemed emboldened by the fast and later that day he tried to fuck the side of a couch someone had left on the curb. He started sprinting after chipmunks and squirrels, barking until his voice ran out, digging holes in the yard, knocking over the neighbors’ trash cans in a rage. Thursday night neither of us slept—he sprinted around the house, barking and vicious, and I chased him, tried to catch him for a while until I gave up near dawn, slept a little while outside, wrapped in a quilt, dew-soaked and shivering. Friday I left him tied up in the kitchen all day, put in earplugs and turned on a fan to drown out his whine. I went to sleep early but woke up to his paws on my face as he tried to fuck the inside of my bent elbow with a penis protruding like the terrible red stamen of some god-awful plant. As I threw him off me, he smacked his head on the floor, reopening a scab, splattering blood as he did a hunched run from room to room. In the kitchen the refrigerator had been knocked over.

I don’t know what to do now, a state I am so familiar with that it feels like my only true home. I fell asleep almost completely dressed. Heavy boots, long underwear, a big wool skirt. No shirt, but I’ve got the quilt, though it’s mildewy from being damp most of the time, or maybe that’s just me. I wander the yard wearing it like a cape, only then realizing that the mice are gone and I haven’t seen any of the raccoons in days. I can hear the dog yelling in the house—Dog! Dog! Dog! Dog! Dog! the dog says. I must find a way to be more like this dog and much less like him too, I think, and only then do I see the scraps of Ralph’s fur and splintered bones scattered around the back of the shed. Maybe being less like the dog is better than being more like the dog. But it’s hard
to say.

It’s Wayne again, I see him coming toward me in the grocery store. I had managed to slip into the house and get my overcoat and wallet without waking the dog, though had forgotten to put on a shirt so I had to keep the coat on everywhere I went, lest I make a problem for myself. I thought if I walked to town I might find some kind of redemption, maybe a fresh juice, something a real person would consume, and this is when I see Wayne.

We think you know something, he says, about Ralph.

This just doesn’t seem like enough information for me to form a legitimate response, so I wait.

Wayne, I say, using his name all nice like that, like people do, what is it that you think I know about Ralph?

He tells me someone saw me struggling with the cat and yelling at it a couple of weeks ago, one morning, when it appeared I had been sleeping in my yard. He tells me he himself knows that I was the one who set the fire over on that empty lot and he put it out himself and didn’t report me. I realize then I may not have been making such a great impression on the neighborhood, that maybe I should have tried harder to convince them I wasn’t all that bad, smiled a little, lingered in the small talking people do on sidewalks. I’ve never been convicted of a crime, but I have a convict’s face, always have.

Ralph, I say, if that’s really his name, killed just about every bird that ever flew near my garden this summer.
He’s a cat, Wayne says.

That much is clear, I say, but the fact stands that he was doing legitimate damage to the local bird population.

Wayne scrunches his face at me. Now, what are you really saying? Are you saying you did something about this, that you .?.?. retaliated? 

How do we know that the birds he ravaged weren’t endangered? And how do we know that Ralph’s deflation of the bird population wouldn’t have caused a spike in the insect population, which could have caused crop problems, famine, and so forth? How do we know that the overall good that came from his vanishing isn’t greater than the good he may or may not have caused in the lives of his owners?

What I’m saying is that it might not be so reasonable for a person to be upset by the disappearance of a cat if the cat was a known threat to a more vulnerable population. 

My overcoat is a thick parka with a fur-lined hood. You got it for me, stole it from a ski lodge, you said. It was almost too heavy for the morning walk to town but now, just about noon and warm, it is fully inappropriate. Wayne is wearing flip-flops. As I tell him about the bird murders and the relative costs and benefits of the existence of Ralph or the nonexistence of Ralph, we walk from the grocery store and into the parking lot, Wayne flip-flopping beside me, listening. He really is a good listener, and observant.

Aren’t you too hot? he asks, pointing at the coat.

No, I say, putting the hood up, and just then, at the end of the parking lot, I notice the landlady loading her children and groceries into the car. She waves vaguely at Wayne and Wayne waves back as he turns to frown at me. I don’t wave at anyone, just watch the landlady’s car reverse and turn and leave the parking lot and disappear around a corner. I am beginning to think she wants to be someplace else, anyplace else, and will say anything and do anything to get there.

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